I think a lot about the things that used to set my soul on fire. Hours, days, weeks spent indulging in this hobby or that activity. When I was a kid, there was nothing that made me more elated—or enraged—than the piano. I started playing when I was seven, and took to the instrument like a natural. I remember my first lesson in the soundproofed studio, little me on a tall bench learning how to find middle C. My weekly lessons continued through high school, taking up most of my Saturday mornings and eventually weekday evenings.
By high school I was crushing complicated pieces composed by the greats. I performed in Solo & Ensemble contests where I received the highest rating, a one, at almost every performance—except the year I got a two given by non-pianists that I could rant about for the rest of my life. Totally not holding a grudge. Since I could read both treble and bass clef and had strong music theory fundamentals, marching and concert band were a breeze. I inhaled music. It became an integral part of me.
At sixteen, I decided music was my career path, and I ultimately wanted to be a band director. In support of my pursuit, my parents bought me an upright Yamaha, cherry wood with tapered, narrow legs beneath the keyboard. Stunning. I prepped for college auditions for a year, memorizing four pieces of music to show my range and skill. I practiced for hours, after school, during school, weekends, holidays. I applied to exactly one music program, auditioned, and got accepted.
I absolutely, unequivocally, and without an ounce of exaggeration hated being a college music student. As a perfectionist to the nth degree, I felt small and uneasy among people who far exceeded me in ability and performance. While it wasn’t necessarily a contest, it was certainly not a team sport. I remember once having my memory go on vacation in the middle of a piece I played for my peers, who were sitting mere feet away from me on the stage in the auditorium. I blanked so hard I had to retrieve my sheet music, which was not a thing people did. Believe me when I say, being smashed by a falling piano cartoon-style would’ve felt better.
It was complicated, realizing I didn’t like playing at that level. The joy, the soaring feeling of accomplishment didn’t hit the same when I was holed up in a stale practice room, or when my professor rolled in at least ten minutes late to my thirty minute lessons, or when I blew it in front of my fellow students. To be a musician in that world, you had to consume it—and let it consume you.
Lost, confused, I applied to a music therapy program in Michigan, got accepted, and planned to go until a few weeks before the semester started. I got real honest with myself. I didn’t want a career in music. It made me miserable. So, that chapter in my life closed for good.
I still played sometimes on the electronic keyboard my now-husband bought me our first Christmas together (I picked a good one). But it wasn’t the same. I missed the feel of my Yamaha, the singing strings and the non-plastic touch of the keys. Living in dorms and second-floor apartments, I had no ability to move my piano in, so it stayed in my parent’ living room. The longer I was separated from it, the more my skills started to atrophy, and I moved on to other things.
And then we bought a house, with a perfect spot for my piano. I told myself I was going to pick the instrument back up again, to brush up on old pieces, to play regularly. Full of great intentions. Life happens, as it often does, and most days the piano sat, dusty and quiet, a beautiful piece of furniture tucked away in my home office. I suspect a lot of people who have been to my house don’t even know it’s there.
Working from home for seven years, I see that piano every day. Sometimes I wander over and tinker for a while on pieces I already know. Those college audition songs, the ones I used to know backwards and forwards, are completely alien to me now. I haven’t learned anything new in a long time, part distracted, and part intimidated. There is, however, one piece in my Beethoven sonata collection that has called to me, haunted me, ever since my professor played it for us in music history class.
Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, Opus 13, is a monster. It begins with a slow, drawling opening with so much white, silent space it’s almost uncomfortable, then it launches into a chaotic presto, where Beethoven exploits his infamous loud/soft, male/female dichotomous style. Octaves, crossovers, flying runs. You name it, it’s in this piece. It’s lightning fast and extremely technical. I’ve sat with it a few times in the past, knowing what the piece is supposed to sound like but never quite getting past the fear of not being good enough anymore.
One week ago, I decided I was ready to best Beethoven. I began sightreading with fresh eyes, tapping into every memory stream I had from almost three decades (gross) of playing. I went through each section, meticulously charting fingerings and penciling in notations, as my childhood teacher taught me. I repeated tricky phrases at an achingly slow tempo, syncing my hands, arms, foot, and brain, really understanding the nuance, the touch, the look of it. From my college instructor, I learned that I locked my hand positions too much. I need to constantly remind myself to loosen my wrists to increase my reach, to not hold the frame of an octave and let my fingers release off the keys. If I’m going to play this beast at tempo, I have to kill that habit.
Like writing, playing piano is a solo endeavor you don’t want anyone to witness until it’s completely polished—and maybe not even then. So I decided to combine the two. This is not only a return to something I loved, but an accountability effort. Now that you, my readers, know what I’m doing, I can’t take it back. It’s gotta happen.
This is a da capo, a new beginning. I am going to best Beethoven. At the end, I promise, I’ll play for you. Virtually, of course. Stay tuned…
(Unlike my piano, which is so out of tune I’m not sure if the notes are wrong or if just that out of whack. Yes, that’s on the agenda too.)